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A Little Slice of Oz : In an Area Marred by Gangs and Violence, the Arts Enclave of St. Elmo Village Has Been a Haven Where Kids Can Let Their Imaginations Take Wing. But Paying the Bills Has Become a Struggle.

February 12, 1995|LUCILLE RENWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In truth, Sykes has brought together an array of youths from differing backgrounds. He has had nightlong rap sessions with some and put paintbrushes and welding guns in the hands of all them.

Six years ago, during a student mural project, Roderick helped Rittner, then a junior at Los Angeles High School, shake his fear of paint.

"I remember when we poured the paint, I didn't want to touch it. I didn't want to make a mistake on the wall," said Rittner, now 22 and a professional painter who teaches at the village and runs another arts workshop in Pico-Union. "Roderick just told me to stick my fingers in and just feel the paint. He taught me to feel much closer to the elements that I was using."

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Rittner and Cortes, 22, an airbrush artist, are the newest village residents and considered the next generation of leaders to hopefully carry on the enclave's philosophy.

"St. Elmo Village is going through a rebirth and gaining new energy," Sykes said. It's a transition from adolescence to adulthood that includes new volunteers, new spirit and a new look.

Sykes and his uncle had been talking about the renovation for years. Talks and planning with city officials started in 1992. The village secured a $270,000 loan from the Los Angeles Housing Department to pay for the project.

In 1993, the Design Professionals' Coalition, a collection of architects, planners and engineers organized after the 1992 riots to offer volunteer planning services to nonprofit organizations, devised blueprints for the village's face lift. The plans call for new plumbing and wiring in the aging buildings. The asphalt walkways will be redone in concrete and the garage-studio will be insulated and sectioned into separate workshop spaces.

Construction started in September, 1993, with a four-month completion time. Sykes said the village planned to repay the loan by applying for a change in housing status that would allow St. Elmo's to charge rates comparable to the surrounding area, but until the renovation is finished the application is on hold.

Right now, three residents pay $300 a month in rent, while a fourth pays $133 because of rent control. Sykes and his wife don't pay rent, nor do they receive a salary for their work at the village. Grants and donations pay for the artists' workshops.

Logistic problems with the construction contract repeatedly halted the project. Seventeen months later only 80% of the work is done. And an April 1 due date for the first loan payment of $1,500 looms.

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Most of the village's funding comes from city grants that pay for the free workshops and allow village leaders to hire aspiring artists. Private grants have helped pay for occasional office help, but the administrative burden falls on the shoulders of Sykes and his wife, who juggle earning their own livelihood as artists with running the village, writing grant proposals and dealing with the renovation.

The construction holdup is "destroying the village," Sykes said. "We've had to turn away teachers who want to bring their students here for Black History Month."

The renovation has also effectively suspended St. Elmo's annual Festival of the Art of Creative Survival for three years. The Memorial Day weekend event, which features artwork, dance and music, gives the village its greatest exposure and profit.

"There are a lot of people who only know about the village because of the festival, so with (that) on hold for so long people may think we don't exist anymore," Alexander-Sykes said. "We really need to get another one going so we can get back on track."

Otis L. Will, rehabilitation project coordinator for the city's Housing Department, said that although there have been a few snags, the project will definitely be finished.

Once completed, St. Elmo will be fully accessible and able to accommodate more functions. Sykes is hoping to include art exhibits, summer outdoor plays, cultural events and an annual calendar as part of the revitalized St. Elmo Village. It is part of the dream he and Rozzell had talked about for St. Elmo's maturation to adulthood.

Though Rozzell Sykes had semi-retired from village operations in recent years, he still maintained a heavy presence and his own significant following of visitors.

"It's like now there's a void of his half, the people he involved himself with," his nephew said. "We'll have to find a way to reach out to those folks so they're a part of the ongoing process of the village."

Revitalizing the pool of volunteers and obtaining funding to hire a full-time administrative assistant is next on the list.

"I see real hope for the future, but to do that means we'll need more involvement from people and more support from organizations," Rittner said. "I would like to see the village full of activities, constantly busy and full of people. It has enough energy and positivity to give to lots of people."

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